Monday, February 6, 2012

Some “Nos” are Better than Others

This week I’m taking a break from talking about signing with babies to discuss another issue that faces every parent of a toddler: Noncompliance with requests. We all know there are nice ways and not so nice ways to say “no.” Well, how we as parents say it to our children turns out to have an important influence on how children learn to say it too.

Let’s look first at children’s behavior. Turns out there are individual differences in how toddlers express their unwillingness to cooperate. The strategies fall into two different categories, unskilled and skilled.

• Unskilled: The toddler gives no reason for noncompliance. He or she may simply ignore the parent’s request, angrily defy it (“No!”), or quietly refuse (“No, I play more.”)

• Skilled: The toddler tries to find some “wiggle room” in the parent’s request through negotiations of some kind. In this case, he or she may try for a compromise (“Just one more?”) or attempt to justify noncompliance (“Not done yet.”)

How do toddlers come to favor one type of strategy over another? As in many other domains of development, they model themselves after what they experience their parents doing. Parents who supply explanations, suggest compromises, and consider the child’s feelings when asking for cooperation tend to have children who favor the skilled strategies—even if they choose not to comply.

And why is it important which strategy—skilled or unskilled—a toddler favors? Not only do the unskilled strategies make for more tension between parent and child, but research shows that children who tend toward unskilled strategies as toddlers continue to do so at age five—thereby running the risk of permanent damage to the parent-child relationship.

Of course, all parents would prefer that their young children always comply with their requests. That’s hardly realistic, however. What this research suggest is that even when toddlers don’t comply, there well maybe something in the “how” of their behavior that is worthy of appreciation.

Happy Signing (and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook)!


Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Co-Founder, the Baby Signs® Program
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
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